The Rebel’s reporting on the Quebec mosque shooting, annotated

The Rebel, the website started by former Sun News personality Ezra Levant after the all-news network was shut down, likes to ask a lot of questions.

It’s good to ask questions. Journalism is about questions. Unfortunately too many of The Rebel’s questions are directed at its audience, rather than the people who would actually know the answers to its questions. The result is that the audience is left to guess at answers, and that doesn’t always lead to the truth.

Within hours of the Quebec City mosque shooting that left six Muslim men dead and more than a dozen injured, The Rebel had registered the domain quebecterror.com (Levant loves to register domain names) and was asking questions. Many of them were directed at the so-called mainstream media.

Since I happen to work for a daily newspaper, the most mainstream of mainstream media, perhaps I can offer some insight. So here is The Rebel’s reporting on the “Quebec terror” attack, annotated with notes from myself.

First story: Jan. 30

The Rebel’s first report on the Quebec mosque shooting.

On January 29, 2017, two armed gunmen burst into a mosque in Quebec City, killing 6 and wounding 19 more.

First of all, it was only one gunman, Alexandre Bissonnette, who has been charged with murder. (More on that later.) On a less important note, “armed gunmen” is redundant, and at this point there was no reason to believe the method of entry into the mosque was by “burst”.

But within minutes, before any facts were in, the mainstream media had already made up their mind about what happened: it was “Islamophobia.”

The Rebel does not cite any examples suggesting the “mainstream media” had determined a cause. Newsrooms, particularly in Quebec, were frantically trying to get reporters and cameramen to the scene in the minutes after they learned of the attack.

That’s not to say people associated with mainstream news outlets didn’t jump to conclusions. An attack at a mosque certainly seems like Islamophobia at first glance. But it’s important to separate the opinions of individuals (including newspaper columnists) from what ends up in news stories.

Some journalists — and even a Quebec politician — said that Donald Trump was to blame.

This is a legitimate criticism of some of the hysteria after the attack. Within days we learned that Bissonnette was a fan of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But there’s no evidence that Donald Trump influenced the attack in any way. Unfortunately once again The Rebel does not cite examples, so it’s hard to evaluate the context of the statements of these “some journalists.” (A later Rebel video shows a Neil Macdonald opinion column and stories about statements from two candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership, neither of whom are from Quebec.)

But an eyewitness at the mosque said one of the gunmen shouted “Allah Akbar”. That’s what a Muslim terrorist says, not an “Islamophobe”.

The Rebel does not produce this eyewitness. But later reporting appears to trace back to an unnamed source of Radio-Canada, which is cited in this Huffington Post story. Radio-Canada is also cited as the source for this statement by La Presse. Since the source is unnamed, it’s hard to fact-check. But there are plenty of other witnesses, and none of them have come forward to repeat this report. Also, “Allah akbar” is not just a terrorist slogan, it’s a common phrase among Muslims, literally translating as “God is great”. This statement is the equivalent of saying only Christian terrorists shout “Amen”.

At their press conference this morning, Quebec police refused to name the two suspects taken into custody last night. Why?

Because they hadn’t been charged yet. The police were clear on that fact. It’s standard police procedure in Quebec not to identify people who have been arrested but not charged. And yeah, it’s annoying as hell for journalists because the arraignment usually happens on the next day. (The fact that one of those arrested was not charged is certainly an argument in favour of this policy.)

What’s going on here — a Muslim attacking a mosque? What are the facts? And can we trust the mainstream media to tell us the truth?

The Rebel casts doubt on mainstream media as a whole, despite the fact that the source for the facts in its own report come from the mainstream media.

We don’t know all the facts yet. But unlike the CBC, we intend to cover the truth, not bury it.

Again, the most important fact from this story that The Rebel uses to attack mainstream media (and now the CBC in particular), the witness who alleged hearing “Allah Akbar”, comes from the CBC.

Second story: Jan. 31

The next day, the first story was updated to what (as of this writing) now appears at The Rebel’s website.

UPDATED: On January 29, 2017, an armed gunman burst into a mosque in Quebec City, killing 6 and wounding 19 more.

It was a horrendous attack that must be condemned. And immediately it was.

But the early reports were confusing. One eyewitness at the mosque said there were more than one gunman. Another said there was a shout of “Allah Akbar”.

The Rebel seems to be confused here, saying something as fact in the first paragraph and then questioning it in the third. I talked about the “Allah akbar” quote above. As for the report of a second shooter, that’s common in events like these. We saw it in Newtown, Fort Hood, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Orlando, Chattanooga and Ottawa, all events that turned out to be a single shooter. (Several of these have since evolved into conspiracy theories of police covering up a second shooter for an unclear political purpose.)

This false report of a second shooter is so common, in fact, that it made it into On the Media’s Breaking News Consumer Handbook. (There are instances where there actually was a second shooter, like Columbine or San Bernardino, but those are rare.) It’s a reminder that in an ongoing emergency, a lot of information being passed around turns out to be untrue.

And that night, police took into custody two men — Alexandre Bissonnette, and Mohamed Khadir, a Muslim man.

The next morning, police released Khadir, saying he was no longer a suspect, but rather a witness. And they laid charges against Bissonnette, for murder.

What’s going on here? What are the facts? And can we trust the mainstream media to tell us the truth about such a controversial and sensitive subject?

The Rebel appears to be questioning the account of what happened to Khadir, apparently finding it odd that a Muslim man would be at a mosque. No evidence is presented here that would put the official version into question.

Third story: Jan. 30

What really happened inside the Quebec mosque that’s become scene to Canada’s most recent terror attack? The Rebel Media has descended on Quebec City to get an answer.

Spoiler alert: The Rebel Media will leave Quebec City without getting an answer.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard were quick to label the attack an act of terrorism.

And while journalists and politicians rushed to label the attack a severe case of so-called “Islamophobia,” police have not identified individuals in custody.

Here The Rebel criticizes politicians and journalists for being quick to judge. That’s a reasonable criticism. But The Rebel has also taken to referring to this as a “terrorist attack” by now, without any hedging.

With a fluid situation before us, The Rebel is on the ground to do the job the mainstream media won’t. We’re here to ask the tough questions, demand answers, and follow the facts — wherever they lead.

It’s hard to speak for the “mainstream media” as a whole. But plenty of tough questions were being asked by journalists. The difference is they weren’t being asked into the ether, they were being asked to people who might know the answers.

With this report came the first “on the scene” video from correspondent Faith Goldy:

We are now at the outside of the parameter.

I think she means “perimeter.” Right outside the tape is the usual spot for TV journalists reporting on a breaking story like this.

Quebec has become home to a lot of radicalization…

Whether Quebec has seen “a lot” of radicalization is subjective. No evidence is presented comparing the level of radicalization in Quebec to anywhere else. Once again, though, The Rebel is quoting mainstream media in its reporting despite the fact that it clearly doesn’t trust that reporting. In this case, as Goldy speaks, the video shows two screenshots from montrealgazette.com, one a Gazette story, and the other a translated story from Presse Canadienne.

The video also includes this video, which apparently shows a rivalry with another mosque. The Rebel appears to be suggesting this would be relevant to the shooting, but doesn’t speak to anyone from either mosque to provide context.

Fourth story: Jan. 30

This story starts with standard reporting of things said by politicians who were now on the scene. Then it moves on to this (their bolding, not mine):

Consequently, I asked mourners at the Quebec City vigil what role, if any, President Trump played in the terrorist attack in their own backyard. Their answers will shock you.

From the video, the answers aren’t shocking at all. They range from “I think yeah” to “I don’t know” to Option nationale’s Sol Zanetti explaining that this is a larger problem and Trump is more of a symptom than a cause.

I also reminded attendees of initial witness reports that alleged— not one— but two assailants entered their mosque yelling, “Allahu Akbar!” before opening fire.

This is undeniably what she told the people in her streeter. Though again we don’t have these witnesses to cross-examine and The Rebel does not speak to them. A later report from TVA Nouvelles interviews a person inside the mosque (who is also unnamed) saying it wasn’t the gunman uttering these words, but the people in the mosque being shot at. A Daily Mail report, quoting Professor Ahmed Aelrefai, confirms this. (However, this report in Britain’s The Sun, which identifies the witness as a 22-year-old student named Abdi, quotes him as saying the person yelling that didn’t sound like he spoke Arabic.)

As developments surrounding Canada’s latest terrorist attack take shape with each passing hour, several crucial questions remain:

Was there more than one perpetrator? Who would have shouted “Allah Akbar”? And why did police keep Mohamed Belkhadir overnight if he was just a witness?

By now, most journalists for other media are satisfied with the responses to all these questions: There was not more than one perpetrator, it was the worshippers being shot at that shouted “Allah akbar” and Belkadir was kept overnight because he ran when police approached him, and the police wanted to be sure his story checked out before letting him go.

In the video, Goldy asks random people at the vigil about the reports of two gunmen. Understandably, they say they don’t know of the details, but they’re satisfied with the police’s belief that this man acted alone.

What are we to make of those witness reports that they saw not one, but two assailants walk into their mosque?

Wait, I thought the gunmen “burst” into the mosque. That’s what The Rebel wrote in its first and second stories. Was this a walking burst? Or has The Rebel gotten new information? Or is it just getting lazy in its descriptions?

Fifth story: Jan. 31

For many, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing the sole suspect, Alexandre Bissonnette, is behind bars, facing eleven charges of first degree, and attempted murder.

But for others, questions remain.

The Rebel does not say who the “many” or “others” are in this story. These are lazy weasel words, and unfortunately common in news reporting. Don’t be vague, give examples.

Questions about facts that are less categorical than the need to condemn the attack. Questions about who was involved and what motivated them. And why one narrative was seemingly deleted, and replaced by another.

The Rebel seems to have difficulty accepting the idea that initial reports about a mass shooting can turn out to be wrong, despite years of examples of erroneous reports of second shooters, or mistakes like identifying the wrong shooter at the Sandy Hook shooting (which, like with this case, wasn’t about the media having bad sources, but police having information that turned out to be incorrect).

Twelve hours after the attack, the official media narrative involved not one but two suspects who allegedly yelled, “Allahu Akbar!” while carrying out their murderous rampage.

There’s no “official media narrative”. Some news outlets picked up the “Allah akbar” thing, others didn’t, either because they didn’t see it or because they didn’t think the sourcing was strong enough to include in their stories. The two suspects part is correct, as two suspects were arrested. This is a good reminder of how “suspect” and “perpetrator” do not mean the same thing.

Witnesses were interviewed across various media outlets. Witnesses who claimed to have been inside the mosque at the time of the attack. All alleged the same: Two assailants stormed in, opening fire while shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” As of Monday morning Canada’s state broadcaster, the CBC, conducted television interviews with witnesses who, again, corroborated the story.

The witnesses did not all allege the same thing, as you can see above. Also, we’ve gone from “burst” to “walked” to “stormed”.

The Rebel goes on to ask several other questions, directed at police. The answers to these will likely come out at trial.

But the mainstream media can’t be bothered with tough questions, quickly obsessed with a new narrative based on a few ‘likes’ on Bissonnette’s Facebook page.

It’s true that news reports and punditry focused on Facebook page likes. A like is just a way of following a page, and doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with everything it says or measure how strongly you support it. And as The Rebel points out, Bissonnette also liked the NDP. But as Goldy’s video mentions this, it shows a clip of that being mentioned in the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper.

Canada’s state broadcaster quickly shifted its tone. By evening, all witness reports involving two suspects or shouts of “Allah Akbar!” were deleted, and replaced with alternative facts. The CBC even interviewed the former suspect Mohamed Belkhadir and, despite his name being a matter of public record by then, the state broadcaster did not include his name or his face, and even scratched his voice!

It’s impressive how fast Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” slip has become a running gag. But CBC, like other media, replaced unconfirmed reports with information whose sourcing was more solid. Generally, when information is shown to be false, a correction should also be added. Unfortunately the media is less consistent when information can be neither confirmed nor disproven.

As for the hesitancy to identify Belkhadir, it likely came from an abundance of caution (and maybe a little guilt) about subjecting an innocent bystander to online abuse.

Moreover, unlike cases of Islamic extremism, there was no apparent journalistic search for mental illness as the root cause.

I have no idea where The Rebel gets the idea that (1) the media is uninterested in Bissonnette’s mental health, or that (2) the media looks at mental health routinely in cases of radical Islamic extremism. Again, no examples are cited. But I can point out that mental health came up very little in looking at the most famous Islamic terror attack in the United States, while plenty of journalists are focusing on what was going through Bissonnette’s mind (especially because it could be used as a line of defence at trial).

Instead, media outlets quoted friends and neighbours who described Bissonnette as a polite and introverted individual from a good family. Classmates at Laval University– even ones who debated politics with Bissonnette — described him as someone who wasn’t at all hateful. One home video even seems to suggest Bissonnette is something of a conscientious environmentalist. But, again, no details about Bissonnette’s personal life have led the media to ask meaningful questions about what could have caused the suspect to allegedly commit such a heinous crime.

This paragraph baffles me. The Rebel accuses the media of not asking questions about his state of mind after citing examples of the media asking people who knew him about his state of mind.

Without police reports on a possible motive, why hasn’t the mainstream media considered things other than Islamophobia?

Is there any relation, say, between one of the victims, Khaled Belkacemi, who was a Professor at Laval and the university student who allegedly committed this act? Or even the other university student who was set free?

I contacted Laval University and asked if either Alexandre Bissonnette or Mohamed Belkhadir ever took a class with the slain professor, but still await the university’s response.

Between students and employees, there are almost 70,000 people connected to Université Laval, in a city with a population of 545,000 and a metro area of 800,000. So one in 10 people in the region is either a student or employee of the university. The fact that one of the six killed is connected with the university should hardly be surprising. And the fact that two young people were students should not be surprising either, since there are about half as many Université Laval students as there are people in the region ages 20-29.

Belkacemi is a professor in chemistry who’s originally from Algeria. Belkhadir is a student in engineering who’s originally from Morocco. And Bissonnette was a political science student originally from Quebec. There’s no evidence Bissonnette is connected to either of the other two through the university.

After numerous emails to Quebec’s police media relations contacts, I visited headquarters, but was turned away without an interview.

Considering how many media were in Quebec City at the time, this is unsurprising.

These are valid questions. Someone simply needs to ask them.

And the answers are out there.

I’d just like to hear them.

Unfortunately The Rebel and Goldy did not find those answers. Beyond requests for an interview with Quebec City police, there’s no evidence they tried.

A full 12 hours after the attack, the official media narrative involved not one but two suspects who allegedly yelled “Allahu akbar” while carrying out their rampage. Witnesses were interviewed, they said that they were inside the mosque at the time of the attack. All of them allege the same: two assailants opening fire shouting “Allahu akbar”. As of Monday morning, Canada’s state broadcaster the CBC conducted interviews with several witnesses, all of which corroborated that story.

While Goldy explains this in the video, screenshots are shown of three websites — CBC News, La Presse and the Toronto Star — with clips of witness reports. The video does not make clear that all three of these cite Radio-Canada as their source for the witness report. The video also includes a clip from CBC News Network, which may or may not be the same witness who spoke to Radio-Canada.

Well just because the mainstream media refuses to dig any deeper doesn’t mean that we at The Rebel will stop asking the tough questions.

The Rebel stopped asking the tough questions and left the city on Feb. 1, three days after the attack.

Sixth story: Feb. 1

As the Rebel prepares to depart from Quebec City, here are some outstanding questions we will be investigating in detail from our headquarters in Toronto:

  • What was the suspect’s motive?
  • When will Bissonnette’s twin brother speak up?
  • Why was Mohamed Belkhadir detained by police for over 12 hours?
  • Why is this the Prime Minister’s team micromanaging the narrative?
  • How will the attack impact public policy going forward?

Having answered none of its questions, nor apparently spoken to any witnesses, victims, friends or family of victims, suspects, friends or family of suspects, police officers, prosecutors or politicians, The Rebel ended its on-the-ground reporting and went back home with five unanswered questions.

Bissonnette’s motive is obviously a big story here, and journalists are very interested in that. They are also obviously interested in how this will impact public policy. The remaining three questions are more minor. I’m sure journalists would love to sit down with Bissonnette’s brother or other members of his family. The prime minister’s office “micromanaging the narrative” by complaining to Fox News about a tweet was criticized by journalists and even by the opposition in the House of Commons.

And as for Belkhadir’s time in custody, the best person to answer that question might be Belkhadir himself. La Presse spoke to him, and he said he understood why he was a suspect — he fled the scene when he saw police draw their guns, because he didn’t identify them immediately as police — and said the police treated him well. The fact that it took until the next day to rule him out as a suspect does not seem that unusual to me considering the chaotic situation of that night.

And then nothing

It’s now been 11 days since The Rebel’s last news report on the Quebec mosque attack. Though Goldy apparently talks about it in an episode of her paid-subscription show On the Hunt this week. The Rebel’s reporting hasn’t convinced me to pay the $8 for a subscription to watch the show. In any case, I’m limiting my analysis here to what’s on the “Quebec terror” page and is publicly accessible.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m in no rush to shut down The Rebel or let an irrational hate of its contributors drive my knee-jerk judgments of it. Had they been serious about following the facts in an objective manner, they might have uncovered useful information. Unfortunately, it looks like they wasted money sending two people on a trip to Quebec City where they came back with some clips from a streeter, a failed interview request with police, an unanswered email to a university, and open questions that any random conspiracy theorist could have asked from anywhere in the world. Plus a lot of information gleaned from the websites of those same mainstream news outlets that The Rebel seems to disdain and mistrust so much.

But at least Faith Goldy asked those questions while standing outside in the cold near the scene. If The Rebel has learned anything from the mainstream media, it’s that appearing to be near the news is more important than actually getting the news.

5 thoughts on “The Rebel’s reporting on the Quebec mosque shooting, annotated

  1. dilbert

    What you have there is a perfect example of the type of reporting that has really taken over the US. Levant is using a sort of distilled version of Rush Limbaugh meets Fox News, pretending to be “news media” when they are nothing more than opinion tossers and slant artists.

    Part of the problem is their seeming inability to move away from basic errors made at the start. The “two gunmen bursting in” is a powerful statement of fact that we know now not to be fact at all. It took the Rebel a long time and a lot of dancing around to try to get away from that without seeming to admit to being wrong, instead blaming “mainstream media” for it. They can do no wrong!

    Reply
  2. Media Man

    Well one of your best posts ever Steve. It showed you put some serious time and effort..

    Congrats and good work. I’ve done some sharing with right wingers in the USA

    Reply
  3. Marc

    The Rebel is basically a bastardized love child of Breitbart and InfoWars. Ezra Levant, Faith Goldy, and Lauren Southern are Canadian versions of, respectfully, Steve Bannon, Sarah Palin, and Ann Coulter. Southern is also a regular on InfoWars.

    The main bee in their bonnet is that this was committed by a local white guy and they can’t seem to grasp (accept?) that.

    It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Rebel was the biggest collective cheerleader on this side of the border for Trump. Quebec City radio hosts were a close second.

    Based on comments online in general and from people like Eric Duhaime and Jeff Fillion, one can easily conclude that not one lesson was learned from this tragedy.

    Reply
  4. Michael O'Brien

    Wow. Excellent, excellent piece. It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s a text-book example of REAL journalism, by a REAL journalist.

    Reply

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